Contra

A short story by Elle Boyd.

Rodney looks up at the sky. It is blue, impossibly so, with a few wisps of cloud overhead. He raises a hand to his forehead to shield his eyes from the bright sun. He guesses it is about mid-morning. 

He looks around him. To his right, a snow-capped range of mountains stud the horizon. Rodney has never seen real mountains, only photos in the few soiled magazines his mother keeps hidden inside her mattress. To his left, perhaps thirty feet away, there seems to be a corn field. Or what appears to be a corn field. Again Rodney has never seen one himself, just a picture of one. The stalks are taller than he is and the husks look ready to be picked. His mouth waters at the very thought of eating corn – fresh corn, not the two-year-old cans he sometimes finds while out gathering – and he turns away. 

He can’t pick this corn.

Underfoot is tall grass interspersed with a few patches of flowering weeds. He recognizes dandelions, and guesses a cluster of purple weeds must be thistle. He is in his bare feet, and the warmth of the earth makes him smile. I don’t care how dumb I look, he thinks, and lays down on the ground. The blades of grass prick the backs of his bare arms, and it feels wonderful. He closes his eyes, hears the distant buzz of bees? flies? and the chirp of a small bird. He hasn’t heard or seen a bird other than the odd crow since he was a small boy, before he and his family were moved to the Inner Core. At least when they’d lived in the Outer Core, the occasional tree still stood, and there was even an old cemetery where he and his sister used to play hide and seek.

But the Inner Core – Inside – is nothing but poverty, overcrowding, desperation, black markets, noise, and filth. Rodney has never stepped foot beyond Outside, but he recalls seeing videos of Tier 1, back when they had legal internet. What he’s seen of Tier 1 is street upon street of townhouses, lots of bicycles, a few subcompact cars, and lawns the size of postage stamps. Still, they have lawns. Cars. Bicycles. 

A neighbour had once drawn a map of the city with its concentric circles: Inside was the bull’s-eye, surrounded by Outside, then Tiers 1 through 3. He described Tier 3 (Rodney still has no idea what Tier 2 may be like): detached houses, big trucks, big trees, big lawns, privacy. The neighbour’s eyes had shone as he talked, and Rodney wasn’t sure he should believe him. He’d wondered if the guy had been smoking something. “No one lives like that,” Rodney had said. 

“You’re too young,” the neighbour had replied. “You only know this life. It wasn’t always like this. Inside is growing. Outside is growing. Tier 1 is shrinking. More change is coming, and it won’t be good.”

Rodney pushes the neighbour’s prediction out of his mind and concentrates instead on the feel of the grass and the sound of the bees. But he can no longer focus.

He stands up and brushes himself off. He hears a rustling sound coming from the cornfields. He freezes, fear prickling his chest. If his friend has found him already –

But he hasn’t. It’s Miranda. Miranda steps out of the cornfield. Rodney holds his breath without realizing he’s done so. She is wearing his favourite outfit, the one from Page 124: knee-high black leather boots and pale pink leather jacket with the black v-neck tank top underneath. Rodney likes this outfit better than the long trench coat that hides her rail-thin body. He bites his lower lip; her brick-red mouth curves into a half-smile. She is so beautiful she practically glows.

Rodney wonders if she’s still modeling, if she’s still young enough to model, which Tier she lives in. He frowns, refocuses. Miranda’s smile wavers, then she beams, perfect teeth on display as she approaches him.

“Hey,” he says. 

“Hey yourself.” She stops in front of him. In her heeled boots she’s easily three inches taller than Rodney. 

“Take those off,” he says, pointing at the boots. Without a word she pulls them from her feet, dropping them on the ground. Her toes disappear into the grass. 

Rodney fingers the fabric of her tank; it is buttery soft. His own clothes are permanently stained, jeans with worn-through knees, sneakers with the soles hanging on for dear life. She looks – smells – clean, unsullied. Too good for Inside. He half expects his hands to leave smudges on her clothes.

“I don’t think we have too long,” he says. He grabs both of her hands in his. “I need you to know I love you, okay? I just had to see you one more time.” He leans close and buries his face in her blonde hair, inhaling the scent of her shampoo (is this what coconut smells like?). 

Miranda sighs against his neck. “I love you too.” Her floral print skirt flutters against his jeans. 

He kisses her forehead, her hands. “Your skin is so soft,” he says. She smiles, waiting. After a moment she brings her lips to his. Her lipstick tastes odd, almost coppery. He wraps his arms around her waist gently, as if afraid she will break if he applies pressure. She breathes into him, and the sensation sends a lick of electricity through his body. He brings a hand up to her neck and grabs a handful of her hair.

“Rodney!” He hears someone calling his name far in the distance. Miranda pulls away, wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. Something shoves his shoulder; he stumbles backward. He reaches out for Miranda, starts to plead for one more moment, but then the headset is ripped away and she is gone. The cornfield is gone, the grass, the mountains. Everything.

“What the hell are you doing?” his friend shouts. He rams the headset into an old grey backpack. burying it down in the bottom, all the while angrily scolding Rodney. “How could you be so stupid? You know VR is contra. You trying to get us put away? What if a patrol came in?”

Rodney props himself up on his elbows. “I—”

“And you damn near drained the battery. Where do you think I’m gonna find another one? Huh? You think they’re just lying around here? You know how much this one cost me?”

Rodney is sitting on the floor of his friend’s bedroom, which he shares with his brothers. One double bed for three teenagers. One of the brothers usually sleeps on the floor, using an old couch cushion as a pillow. Their father sleeps on a love seat in the living room, feet protruding over the armrest. They are a family of four in a one-bedroom apartment with threadbare furniture and an ant problem.

His friend is shaking his head as he continues his lecture. Rodney closes his eyes and tries to remember how Miranda felt under his hands, how her hair smelled, how her pale feet were invisible in the grass. 

His friend smacks his shoulder. “Wake up! How can you try to sleep with all this noise?” And it is noisy: the woman upstairs stomping around and what sounds like furniture scraping across the floor; downstairs the young couple is playing some sort of bass-heavy music; they can hear a baby screaming in the bachelor unit next door. Noise is constant Inside; it is chronic. It is the background to every day, every night. Rodney wonders if these old buildings will one day collapse under the weight of so many people. 

Suddenly the music stops and there is a brief lull; the power has gone out again. Then the scraping and the screaming resume. Rodney pushes himself up from the floor. His mother will be angry if the outage has ruined another dinner; their next grocery allotment isn’t for another three days. Government is scraping the bottom of the barrel already – another sanctioned famine may be looming for Inside.

He apologizes to his friend, promises to find him a new battery on the black market, and goes down the hall in the dark.

After a cold dinner, after his mother and sister argued themselves hoarse, after the power is restored for at least a little while, Rodney enters the bedroom his mother and sister share and fishes the magazines out of his mother’s mattress. He takes them back to his room. He tosses the nature magazines aside and flips through the ones with Miranda, the fashion magazines. The front covers are long gone; many of the pages are half-torn, wrinkled and stained. His mother had found the magazines stuffed behind the fridge when they were first moved Inside a year ago, into this awful building, this awful apartment.

Upstairs it sounds like a patrol visit: the stomping of heavy boots, demanding male voices, the sound of furniture being knocked over as they search for contra. Rodney misses Outside, where at least “fashion” and “nature” and “art” are concepts permitted to exist, albeit in a limited capacity. But once his mother had been laid off, patrols had trucked the family Inside. All it took was one late rent payment. His hand tightens on the magazine, further crinkling the pages.

He flips through to page 124, where Miranda poses in his favourite outfit, a field of corn in the background. He lays back in his cot, tries to block out the sounds from above and below, and instead pretends he can hear the buzzing of bees and the chirping of small birds.


Read more about the author Elle Boyd HERE.

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